Free Markets, Free People

Economy

Krugman finally notices Obama’s an empty suit

Funny stuff.  Paul Krugman, representing much of the left, has apparently finally noticed what an empty suit Obama is:

What have they done with President Obama? What happened to the inspirational figure his supporters thought they elected? Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular?

I realize that with hostile Republicans controlling the House, there’s not much Mr. Obama can get done in the way of concrete policy. Arguably, all he has left is the bully pulpit. But he isn’t even using that — or, rather, he’s using it to reinforce his enemies’ narrative.

Of course Krugman is pretty much focused on economic issues and so seemingly hasn’t been watching Obama through most of his presidency, as many of us have.  He’s finally noticed the “timid guy” who doesn’t seem to stand for anything but does enjoy a good round of golf.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it has taken this long – the blinkers had to be firmly in place to elect him in the first place.   You had, to quote Hillary Clinton as she addressed Gen. Petraeus about the situation in Iraq some years ago, “willingly suspend disbelief” in order to vote for the guy in the first place.  What you had to suspend was the belief that experience and leadership count for something, especially when you’re talking about the highest office in the land.

This timid guy Krugman is talking about has shown the rest of us over and over he’s really unsuited for the job.  And now, even the Krugman’s of the world are beginning to take some notice.

I have to admit to laughing out loud at Krugman’s example – apparently the one that finally clued him into the problem:

His remarks after last week’s budget deal were a case in point.

Maybe that terrible deal, in which Republicans ended up getting more than their opening bid, was the best he could achieve — although it looks from here as if the president’s idea of how to bargain is to start by negotiating with himself, making pre-emptive concessions, then pursue a second round of negotiation with the G.O.P., leading to further concessions.

And bear in mind that this was just the first of several chances for Republicans to hold the budget hostage and threaten a government shutdown; by caving in so completely on the first round, Mr. Obama set a baseline for even bigger concessions over the next few months.

Of course Krugman, as typified by his one-trick pony policy of more and more government spending to cure all ills is bound to be upset by any spending concessions a Democrat might make.  However, I loved his characterization of Obama’s bargaining style.  It is true  and not only does it point to someone totally out of his depth, but someone with no real principles upon which to make a stand.

Krugman turns his attention, after wondering what happened to Obama, to trying to trash everything the GOP has put forward or will put forward.  But so captured is he by his discovery of what Obama isn’t that he has to return to that subject:

You might have expected the president’s team not just to reject this proposal, but to see it as a big fat political target. But while the G.O.P. proposal has drawn fire from a number of Democrats — including a harsh condemnation from Senator Max Baucus, a centrist who has often worked with Republicans — the White House response was a statement from the press secretary expressing mild disapproval.

What’s going on here? Despite the ferocious opposition he has faced since the day he took office, Mr. Obama is clearly still clinging to his vision of himself as a figure who can transcend America’s partisan differences. And his political strategists seem to believe that he can win re-election by positioning himself as being conciliatory and reasonable, by always being willing to compromise.

But if you ask me, I’d say that the nation wants — and more important, the nation needs — a president who believes in something, and is willing to take a stand. And that’s not what we’re seeing.

Baloney.  Krugman has to have lived in a cave if he believes the rhetoric has even come close to matching the reality of the Obama presidency.  He is not a transcendent figure by any stretch.  He is, instead, a true exception to the Peter Principle and has indeed risen to a level above his incompetence. 

But to Krugman’s last point – Obama believes in one thing – Obama.  And any objective appraisal of his performance in office these past 2+ years cannot give him very high marks on “principle” or a willingness to take a stand.   There’s a reason for that.  Obama traded principle for the achievement of his ambition years ago.  He’s intelligent enough to talk the talk, but he seems absolutely incapable of walking the walk or even attempting to do so.

As Dale said on the podcast last night, you sometimes get the feeling that when he says something he truly believes it becomes reality.  In this world you actually have to take action and lead to have things happen.  Obama has no idea how to do that.

~McQ

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The Government Is A Wanton Slut

So we’ve reached an agreement. I’m not surprised. The entire argument — over money, of course — was nothing more than a prelude to an inevitable act.

Foreplay, if you will.

Oh sure, the back and forth was heated at times, but was there ever any doubt that the money-spenders would arrive at a deal? I mean, you cut off a gold-digger from the credit cards and concessions will inevitably be made. Not at first of course (even whores have their pride), but once it becomes inevitable that the spigot will be cut off, even the lowliest scum whores will come to obeisance. It’s what they do.

Without the sweet ambrosia of federal income, the power brokers — a.k.a. your elected officials — would lose all of their power, ephemeral as it may be. And powerless whores are the lowliest whores of all.

Why are they (i.e. Congress, the White House) whores? Because no matter what, regardless of any consequences, our “betters” have declared themselves to be more concerned with maintaining their ability to lord their will over our money (being realistic, our credit), than they are with protecting our ability to spend it as we see fit. Their main worry is that they won’t be able to control how we spend that money, and — most importantly — that it won’t go to the “correct” people. Frankly, if they can’t control our income/wealth/money, then they can’t control us. Indeed, without access to our tax dollars, congress-critters will have no influence at all. And that will not abide for too many if them.

Whatever the deal may be, the only certainty is that, like any John, we’re screwed. And that we will still be paying maximum price for that pleasure.

I don’t mean to make light of the fact that the House was able to wrestle some budget cuts away from the opposition. Kudos are definitely due. But they are paltry … i.e. cuts of $39,000,000,000 in the face of a $1,650,000,000,000 deficit just for this year, which is about a 2.4% cut. Seriously? Who cares?

The unfortunate answer is, “your representatives of all stripes and colors.” Because they need that money to dole out the gifts that keep them in power. A government shutdown means that there will be no incoming money to buy the power and influence our rulers crave. They may whinge about seniors dying and children crying, but what they truly care about is the power of the purse. With that power they can pay off favored constituents whom they will eventually call to account for the government’s distribution of largesse (witness the current fear-mongering about budget-cutters wanting to “kill women” and starve the elderly). They are simply using our tax dollars to buy their own power.

Our elected money-spenders will always bleat in earnest when their source of power is interrupted. So, of course a budget deal was cut. Like a wanton slut, they will always strike a deal to keep the money flowing.

Ryan budget proposal: you can pay me now or you can really pay me a heck of a lot later (updated)

Problem:  As a nation we’re in dangerous debt territory.  If we don’t do something quickly and dramatically, we’re headed for some very rough and painful times.

But while it seems the American public senses this on the whole, polls seem to indicate that all the “free” stuff handed out by government is popular with a large percentage of the population.  Or said another way, they understand that we have a debt problem, they understand the implications of that problem and they don’t mind spending cuts – just so the spending cuts don’t effect programs they like.

The problem is further compounded by an irresponsible administration which gives the debt problem lip service but submits budgets that exponentially increase the problem:

The president’s recent budget proposal would accelerate America’s descent into a debt crisis. It doubles debt held by the public by the end of his first term and triples it by 2021. It imposes $1.5 trillion in new taxes, with spending that never falls below 23% of the economy. His budget permanently enlarges the size of government. It offers no reforms to save government health and retirement programs, and no leadership.

Both of these facts make it hard for those who would actually like to address the problem of debt before it overwhelms us.  That’s because they’ll really get no support politically from the administration, no call to arms and leadership, and the American people are proving to be fickle about the whole process sending very mixed signals.

Solution?

Well the obvious solution is to find some means of cutting spending to at least the level of revenue and to begin working to pay the debt down in an earnest and timely manner.  What isn’t a solution is business as usual but on steroids as proposed by the President.  So today, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) introduced the GOP plan to address the problem.  Or at least part of the problem.  That of out-of-control spending and addressing the debt.  How it will play with the American people remains to be seen, but it is both an earnest and timely proposal.  It also makes some pretty dramatic cuts which is where you can expect to see the pushback.

For starters, it cuts $6.2 trillion in spending from the president’s budget over the next 10 years, reduces the debt as a percentage of the economy, and puts the nation on a path to actually pay off our national debt. Our proposal brings federal spending to below 20% of gross domestic product (GDP), consistent with the postwar average, and reduces deficits by $4.4 trillion.

But there’s pain in them thar words.  And it means things are going to have to be quite different in some areas than they are now.  Government is going to have to be rolled back.  That is unless we’re partial to a complete collapse of our economy and our currency, hyper inflation and all the good times those developments would bring.

So to specifics in Ryan’s proposal.  Addressing welfare in general, he says:

This budget will build upon the historic welfare reforms of the late 1990s by converting the federal share of Medicaid spending into a block grant that lets states create a range of options and gives Medicaid patients access to better care. It proposes similar reforms to the food-stamp program, ending the flawed incentive structure that rewards states for adding to the rolls. Finally, this budget recognizes that the best welfare program is one that ends with a job—it consolidates dozens of duplicative job-training programs into more accessible, accountable career scholarships that will better serve people looking for work.

As we strengthen and improve welfare programs for those who need them, we eliminate welfare for those who don’t. Our budget targets corporate welfare, starting by ending the conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that is costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars. It gets rid of the permanent Wall Street bailout authority that Congress created last year. And it rolls back expensive handouts for uncompetitive sources of energy, calling instead for a free and open marketplace for energy development, innovation and exploration.

I am quite pleased to see the second paragraph.  It is indeed time to eliminate “corporate welfare” and subsidies for favored industries.  It also takes on what we would call traditional welfare.  And make no mistake about it Medicaid and food stamps are welfare.    As for the “perverse incentives” Ryan points too, here’s what they’ve yielded recently:

Snap 1

I’m sure some of that comes with the economic downturn, but it also indicates the effect of the incentives to sign people up for the welfare program.

We can’t afford the level of welfare we’re paying out now – and that included corporate welfare and subsidies.  We are a compassionate people, but I end up shaking my head when I hear government officials claiming that people at “4 times the poverty level” need help?  Really?  So what’s the purpose of the poverty level as a measure and why are we now convinced we have to “help” people well above that level?

Then there are the twin third rails of politics, but areas where dramatic reforms are absolutely necessary to get us on the right fiscal track as a country.  And those are Medicare and Social Security.  The Ryan plan:

Health and retirement security: This budget’s reforms will protect health and retirement security. This starts with saving Medicare. The open-ended, blank-check nature of the Medicare subsidy threatens the solvency of this critical program and creates inexcusable levels of waste. This budget takes action where others have ducked. But because government should not force people to reorganize their lives, its reforms will not affect those in or near retirement in any way.

Starting in 2022, new Medicare beneficiaries will be enrolled in the same kind of health-care program that members of Congress enjoy. Future Medicare recipients will be able to choose a plan that works best for them from a list of guaranteed coverage options. This is not a voucher program but rather a premium-support model. A Medicare premium-support payment would be paid, by Medicare, to the plan chosen by the beneficiary, subsidizing its cost.

In addition, Medicare will provide increased assistance for lower- income beneficiaries and those with greater health risks. Reform that empowers individuals—with more help for the poor and the sick—will guarantee that Medicare can fulfill the promise of health security for America’s seniors.

I’ve already seen some on the left characterizing this as "privatizing" Medicare. And, of course, as we all know, that’s dangerous as government always does it better – look at the budgets for example. Look at the debt.

In fact, what Ryan is talking about is giving seniors a choice vs. automatically enrolling them in a government insurance program that averages about $60 billion a year in waste, fraud and abuse.  There will be a subsidy – probably means tested.  Is the the ideal libertarian answer?  No.  But as I’ve said before, freedom is choice and any legislation that expands that is at least a step in the right direction. 

We must also reform Social Security to prevent severe cuts to future benefits. This budget forces policy makers to work together to enact common-sense reforms. The goal of this proposal is to save Social Security for current retirees and strengthen it for future generations by building upon ideas offered by the president’s bipartisan fiscal commission.

Perhaps raise the caps (I gave a certain percentage to my 401k regardless of how much I earned, so doing the same with Social Security doesn’t really bother me.  And it will provide increased revenue for the fund.  Again, ideal?  No, but then I don’t consider either Medicare or Social Security to be “welfare” since most participants have paid into those systems for their entire working life.   But there are changes which will have to be made.  I don’t favor means testing if the cap is raised.  But I do think that a hard look at the retirement age is necessary.  My ideal outcome, obviously, would be getting government out of the retirement income business, but that’s not going to happen.  So Social Security has to be made self-supporting and not a drain on the budget – as does Medicare.

Budget enforcement: This budget recognizes that it is not enough to change how much government spends. We must also change how government spends. It proposes budget-process reforms—including real, enforceable caps on spending—to make sure government spends and taxes only as much as it needs to fulfill its constitutionally prescribed roles.

If we don’t get some restrictions on government spending, nothing is going to change.  Nothing.  We’ve watched Congress talk the talk for decades, ala Nancy PAYGO Pelosi.  But they ignore their own legislation and policy at will.   As Ryan says, there have to be “real, enforceable caps on spending”.  I interpret that as “you cannot and will not spend more than you take in”.  We’ll see how the Congress interprets that.

Tax reform: This budget would focus on growth by reforming the nation’s outdated tax code, consolidating brackets, lowering tax rates, and assuming top individual and corporate rates of 25%. It maintains a revenue-neutral approach by clearing out a burdensome tangle of deductions and loopholes that distort economic activity and leave some corporations paying no income taxes at all.

Here is something that is going to be as hard to do as entitlement reform.  Why?  Because the tax system provides Congress with another way to wield its power.  But the way it has wielded this power has done precisely what Rep. Ryan points too here – it has “distort[ed] economic activity.”  Make the system simple, remove the loopholes, broaden the base (get some more “skin” in the game from those who now don’t pay taxes) and my guess is you’ll not only see an increase in revenue, but a far greater increase in economic activity.

Bottom line:  We are in a “you can pay me now or you can pay me later” moment.  And if we wait, we’re going to be paying a price we’re just not willing to pay, all because we chose to avoid the pain now.   I’m sure the opponents of this proposal are going to call it “extreme” and something that will “hurt the children”.  Trust me, if you want to see extreme, put it off until this house of cards collapses.  And if you want to avoid “hurting the children”, man up and face the pain now to avoid it later when it really will “hurt the children”.

UPDATE: Chris Edwards at CATO gives his take on the Ryan budget.  I’m pretty much agreed with everything Edwards says:

  • Ryan doesn’t provide specific Social Security cuts, instead proposing a budget mechanism to force Congress to take action on the program. It is disappointing that his plan doesn’t include common sense reforms such raising the retirement age.
  • Ryan finds modest Medicare savings in the short term, but the big savings occur beyond 10 years when his “premium support” reform is fully implemented. I would rather see Ryan’s Medicare reforms kick in sooner, which after all are designed to improve quality and efficiency in the health care system.
  • Ryan adopts Obama’s proposed defense (security) savings, but larger cuts are called for. After all, defense spending has doubled over the last decade, even excluding the costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Ryan includes modest cuts to nonsecurity discretionary spending. Larger cuts are needed, including termination of entire agencies. See DownsizingGovernment.org.
  • Ryan makes substantial cuts to other entitlements, such as farm subsidies. Bravo!
  • Ryan would turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants. That is an excellent direction for reform, and it would allow Congress to steadily reduce spending and ultimately devolve these programs to the states.
  • Ryan would repeal the costly 2010 health care law. Bravo!

Here’s a chart Edwards includes in his post:

201104_blog_edwards52

 

I’m a huge supporter of military spending in order to maintain our national security and technological edge, but I find it hard to believe that there aren’t many places where savings could be accrued in “Security”.  And I’d also note under the broad “Security” umbrella fall many other programs that could be cut – like the entire TSA.  But, in any event, it is an area that should also be looked at with an eye for cutting spending.  It would get us to our goal of paying down the debt even sooner and it can be done without jeopardizing our security (cut costs not capability).

UPDATE II:  Geoff over at Ace of Spades gives a little context to the Ryan proposal:

PublicDebtRyanvsCommissionSmall

 

Now, where I come from, the “extremes” are on either side of a situation, right?

~McQ

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Quote of the Day–Marco Rubio debt ceiling edition

Write it off to me being cynical about what any politician says, but while I like what I hear from Rubio in this WSJ op/ed, I wonder if, in fact, he’ll end up sticking to his guns:

Americans have built the single greatest nation in all of human history. But America’s exceptionalism was not preordained. Every generation has had to confront and solve serious challenges and, because they did, each has left the next better off. Until now.

Our generation’s greatest challenge is an economy that isn’t growing, alongside a national debt that is. If we fail to confront this, our children will be the first Americans ever to inherit a country worse off than the one their parents were given.

Current federal policies make it harder for job creators to start and grow businesses. Taxes on individuals are complicated and set to rise in less than two years. Corporate taxes will soon be the highest in the industrialized world. Federal agencies torment job creators with an endless string of rules and regulations.

So to summarize, Rubio sees a need to find ways to help the economy grow and to keep the national debt from not growing.  Okay, sold.   Next he sees existing federal policies – those, one assumes, include taxes and regulations – as one of the main obstacles to economic growth and one of the main contributors to national debt.  Again, check.  I think, in the main, he’s right.

Here’s the QotD:

We’re therefore at a defining moment in American history. In a few weeks, we will once again reach our legal limit for borrowing, the so-called debt ceiling. The president and others want to raise this limit. They say it is the mature, responsible thing to do.

In fact, it’s nothing more than putting off the tough decisions until after the next election. We cannot afford to continue waiting. This may be our last chance to force Washington to tackle the central economic issue of our time.

Well yes and no.  The defining moment in American history seems to arrive every couple of years when Congress routinely raises the limit again and again.  We’re now at a level that almost matches the yearly GDP with no end in sight if you look at the projected budgets for the next 10 years.  So is this particular vote on the debt ceiling really a “defining moment in American history”?  Only if Congress refuses to raise it.   Otherwise, it is business as usual.

Wit ill it be business as usual or a “defining moment in American history”?  I agree with Rubio that as it stands Congress and the president have obviously decided covertly that they’re not going to “tackle the central economic issue of our time” at the moment.   So where does that leave Rubio?

Well, here’s his position:

I will vote to defeat an increase in the debt limit unless it is the last one we ever authorize and is accompanied by a plan for fundamental tax reform, an overhaul of our regulatory structure, a cut to discretionary spending, a balanced-budget amendment, and reforms to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

No tax reform, regulatory overhaul, cuts to discretionary spending, balanced budget amendment as well as reforms to save Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, no Rubio “yes” vote?

That’s what his statement says to me and anyone familiar with the “goings on” in Congress know -given Rubio’s list of “must haves” before he’d vote “yes” – it is a virtual impossibility.  Not going to happen – at least not anytime soon. 

I would then deduce that Rubio is a permanent “no” on any legislation coming along in oh, the next 20 years, that raises the debt ceiling.  Because, watching politics in Washington for all these years has convinced me that until it all crashes and burns, those folks aren’t going to really do a thing.

And I think Rubio knows it too:

Whether they admit it or not, everyone in Washington knows how to solve these problems. What is missing is the political will to do it.

I’ve seen no indicator that there is now a real will to do it, even after the wave election washed over 60 Republican freshmen into the House and upped the minority numbers for the GOP in the Senate.  Oh there’s talk, of course, but I see the usual turf protection and re-election concerns already beginning to cloud the once clear mandate that said “fix this mess”.  I see knees becoming weak and spines beginning to buckle.

Rubio stakes out a pretty unambiguous position here – not that I think he’s going to be able to stop the debt ceiling from being raised.  On the contrary, I think we’ll see it raised many more times in the coming years.   But I’m wondering how true Rubio will remain to his pledge here.  It will be an interesting exercise to watch a supposedly principle driven and incorruptible Tea Party candidate work in the atmosphere of Washington DC that almost demands “team play” and compromise to “get along” or advance.  He and Rand Paul, along with Allen West (R-FL) in the House are my “white mice” in this Tea Party experiment.  I want to see how true they stay to their pledges, how well they resist the Washington gravitational pull and resultant sell-out that usually occurs. 

I, for once, hope my cynicism isn’t rewarded as it usually is.

We’ll see.

~McQ

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The UK government apparently “gets” how to help create jobs

Much more so than does the President of this country apparently:

Chancellor George Osborne has announced a number of measures to try to help business in his Budget.

Corporation Tax will be reduced by 2% from April 2011, rather than 1% as previously intended, and fall by 1% in the next three years, to reach 23%.

Mr Osborne also said that he was looking to boost enterprise and exports, as part of a Budget "for making things".

He said he also wanted the UK to be the best place to establish a company.

"Cuts in the burden of corporation tax, that will be worth around £2bn per annum when implemented over the coming years, are likely to be particularly beneficial for big multinational companies," said BBC business editor Robert Peston.

"And a significant lifting of planning constraints will delight much of the corporate sector."

He added: "With the corporation tax changes – and the recent pledge by Vince Cable to slash red tape – they represent a loosening of alleged shackles on the corporate sector."

And business body the CBI said the Budget would help business grow and create jobs.

Wow … what a concept.  Cut business taxes and attract businesses, create jobs and actually increase government revenue.

Now, there’s a “jobs bill” for you.

Meanwhile in the US:

 

Corptax

 

‘Nuff said.

~McQ

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Obama’s budget would double public debt by 2021

If you thought President Obama was serious about his rhetorical appeals to fiscal responsibility, one only has to look at the latest CBO report to know better.  There is nothing in the report to support any such contention by the administration.  To the contrary it points to a level of fiscal irresponsibility that is unprecedented in the history of this republic.  Obama’s budget would, if executed, double the public debt by 2021 to $20.8 trillion or 87% of the GDP.  That is if our economic and financial systems, not to mention the dollar, last that long:

In 2012, the deficit under the President’s budget would decline to $1.2 trillion, or 7.4 percent of GDP, CBO estimates. That shortfall is $83 billion greater than the deficit that CBO projects for 2012 in its current baseline. Deficits in succeeding years under the President’s proposals would be smaller than the deficit in 2012, although they would still add significantly to federal debt. The deficit would shrink to 4.1 percent of GDP by 2015 but widen in later years, reaching 4.9 percent of GDP in 2021. In all, deficits would total $9.5 trillion between 2012 and 2021 under the President’s budget (or 4.8 percent of total GDP projected for that period)—$2.7 trillion more than the cumulative deficit in CBO’s baseline. Federal debt held by the public would double under the President’s budget, growing from $10.4 trillion (69 percent of GDP) at the end of 2011 to $20.8 trillion (87 percent of GDP) at the end of 2021.

Given the outright deceit we’re regularly treated too by Democrats concerning their seriousness in addressing the problems we face, or their outright disinterest in  actually doing so (Harry Reid’s recent “see me in 20 years about Social Security” or his whining about defunding “cowboy poets”), it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that we’re in the shape we’re in or that this administration is actually offering these budgets on the one hand while claiming to understand that we can’t continue spending as we are on the other.

We even have Nancy Pelosi claiming Democrats have always been for fiscal responsibility.

It boggles the mind to even consider these numbers and yet we have an administration offering them as the way to go for the future and doing so with a straight face.  

Note the chart included here.  The “baseline projection” is what we’d spend under current law.  CBO claims one of the problems is a decrease in revenues under the President’s proposed policies with, you guessed it, an increase in outlays.  And we’d also see – and this isn’t unexpected at all, given the amount of money we continue to borrow – an increase in the percentage of outlays required to service the debt:

In particular, net interest payments would nearly quadruple in nominal dollars (without an adjustment for inflation) over the 2012–2021 period and would increase from 1.7 percent of GDP to 3.9 percent. Total outlays under the President’s budget would equal 23.6 percent of GDP in 2012, decline slightly as a share of GDP over the following two years, and then rise for the rest of the 10-year projection period. They would equal 24.2 percent of GDP in 2021—about 0.3 percentage points above CBO’s baseline projection for that year and well above the 40-year average for total outlays, 20.8 percent.

So if the President’s budgets were enacted, we’d see government outlays – that’s spending for the rest of us – hit almost a quarter of the GDP and the debt in total about 87% of GDP in 10 years.

Meanwhile Democrats continue to fight against almost every cut for the most inane reasons while we see the debt numbers continue to climb.  Republicans are at least are making an attempt at cutting spending, no matter how weak, but Democrats have given up all pretense.  And all credibility.  The President’s budgets are the final nail in the Dem’s faux “fiscal responsibility” coffin.

~McQ

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Is the economy set on "rebound"?

That’s kind of what some pundits are hinting with the latest "official" unemployment numbers.

But as the three of us noted on yesterday’s podcast, that number is only a slight glimmer in an otherwise dark picture. And the underlying unemployment numbers (and trends) don’t really support the reduction of last week (the number of new private sector jobs was not enough to maintain the unemployment number). Or said another way, it is most likely a temporary blip. Another ominous development that doesn’t bode well economically is the precipitous rise in oil prices and the impact that will have on any recovery. In a word, the impact it will have is "bad".

Oil is one of those commodities that has a very broad impact on economic activity. It is, until an alternative or substitute is found, the literal life-blood of our economy.

How does oil staying in the $104 to $107 a barrel range sound? Not very good, obviously. As one refiner told me, his only control over how much the fuel he refines costs when it leaves his refinery is the economies he can wring out of his equipment, but the cost of the goods coming in are beyond his control. So that cost per barrel is what he’s paying as the crude shows up at his refinery for processing.

How long will it stay over $100 a barrel? Well, many are saying quite some time:

Oil prices climbed to near $106 a barrel Monday as intense fighting between Libyan government forces and rebels appeared to be turning into a civil war and raised the prospect of a prolonged cut in crude exports from the OPEC nation.

By early afternoon in Europe, benchmark crude for April delivery was up $2.25 to $106.67 a barrel, the highest since September 2008, in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract had gained $2.51 to settle at $104.42 a barrel on Friday.

[…]

Citigroup said it raised its 2011 average forecast for Brent crude to $105 from $90, but doesn’t expect the violent protests in North Africa and the Middle East to spread to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.

"We assume that output disruption is maintained through the second quarter," Citigroup said in a report. "Output disruption, or at least the threat of, will support a fear premium for the rest of 2011."

As mentioned in the article, most now view the war in Libya to be a civil war. And, reports today say that Gadhafi’s forces have had some successes against rebel forces (apparently neither side is particularly swift in the combat portion of battle). Reports also point to other countries possibly helping the rebels. And we know there are "friends" of Gadhafi, mostly found in the socialist South and Central American countries, who will try to help the dictator maintain power.

The initial shock of the turmoil in Libya has worn off the markets and they are now looking at a prolonged reduction of capacity with Libya off line.  And, we’re seeing unrest in other Arab oil producing states as well.  Unrest, or instability, drives the price of oil up.

So it isn’t surprising that in the last two weeks, the price of gasoline rose at its second fastest pace ever:

Gasoline prices in the United States posted their second-biggest increase ever in a two-week period, due to the rise in crude oil prices stemming from the turmoil in Libya, an industry analyst said Sunday.

The national average for a gallon of self-serve, regular gas was $3.50 on March 4, according to the Lundberg Survey of about 2,500 gas stations, up 32.7 cents from the previous survey on Feb. 18.

The most it ever jumped was in 2005 when hurricane Katrina hit.  But that was soon solved because the event itself wasn’t prolonged as is a civil war.  So chances are, this isn’t the end of the rising price of gasoline.

As you might expect our national leaders have managed to put us in a position where we essentially have nothing to answer with domestically.  In fact, as I recall, we’ve been told repeatedly for the last 20 or so years that bringing significant new assets on line would take at least 10 years or so and thus, I guess, shouldn’t be done.  Er, yeah, ok and where would we be now if we had committed to that 10 years of bringing them on line 20 years ago?  At least better off than we are now.

And most likely not talking about using the strategic reserve I’d bet.  FYI, the strategic reserve is not supposed to be a tool for the use of politicians to drive down the price of gasoline when their failed energy policies show up at the pump.  It is a reserve for use by our military in case we’re cut off from the foreign oil we’ve become even  more dependent upon.

But back to the economy.

Does anyone really need an explanation of the impact higher fuel prices will have on a barely recovering economy (not to mention unemployment)?  And, with the specter of inflation rising – not to mention food prices – how likely is the impact to be “minimal”?

Yeah, it’s not.

And, as usual, we’re in a basically no-win situation thanks to the foresight of our elected leaders and their wonderful job of putting a practical energy policy in motion.  A 10 month drilling moratorium (and the jobs that go with it) with no real end in sight.

Brilliant.

So to the original question – is the economy set to rebound?

Unfortunately if it was, it most likely will be one of the shortest rebounds in history.

~McQ

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February Employment Situation

Once again, the headline unemployment number for February, which droped from 9.0% to 8.9%, hides much weakness in employment, despite the 193k new payroll jobs. Indeed, the BLS’ own U-3 unemployment rate, which is calculated in a similar fashion to mine, increased from 9.8% to 10.4%.

For my methodology, the numbers look like this:

Civilian noninstitutional population: 238,851,000
Historical participation rate: 66.2%
Proper labor force size: 157,641,660
Actually employed: 138,093,000
Actual unemployment rate: 12.4%

At the end of the day, we need another 8 million new jobs to bring us back to full employment.

David Brooks: austerity, “death panels” and spending exemptions

David Brooks helps demonstrate the problem we face in doing anything meaningful about the fiscal mess our government has gotten itself in.  To give him his due, he is trying, at some level, to address the problems facing the country. But he manages to end up putting himself in precisely the position which seems  prevalent today among those not really serious about doing what is necessary to put the fiscal house in order (but like to pretend they are)  – that is “we want budget cuts but don’t touch my favorite programs”.

Let me give you an example from his column today entitled “The New Normal”.

He begins by acknowledging that there is going to be (needs to be?) a whole lot of deficit cutting over the next few years.  And, his first principle of austerity, as he calls it, is that lawmakers must, as he inartfully but correctly puts it, “make everybody hurt”.  He’s right – no exemptions.  Every program, department, echelon, you name it, associated with government (yeah, that means you public sector unions) are going to have to sacrifice something.  Fine to that point.  When you’re looking at 1.3 trillion in a single year deficit, everyone does have to “hurt” if you hold any hope of eliminating it.

However, in this column  he launches into his second principle of austerity and loses me immediately.

A second austerity principle is this: Trim from the old to invest in the young. We should adjust pension promises and reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life so we can preserve programs for those who are growing and learning the most.

This “principle”  is based in a very nasty premise that “we” are in control of all the money “spent on health care” during the last months and should use that power to help balance the budget (and the fact is, with Medicare, that premise is true).  In other words, “we” will decide to pull the plug on the treatment for oldsters in favor of treatment/”investment” in youngsters.  Not the old folks themselves, mind you.  They’ll have no say in it. He’s talking about the collective “we”.  But don’t you dare say “death panels” you hear me?  And note, he immediately violates his first principle of making “everyone hurt” by claiming that if we throw the oldsters under the bus, we can “preserve programs” for the young.  Where’s the cut in spending when we’re “preserving”?

Oh, it’s not “spending” … we’ll call it “investing”, shall we?

Brooks then expands his “for the children” campaign with this bit of nonsense where he takes a shot at House GOP members:

In Washington, the Republicans who designed the cuts for this fiscal year seemed to have done no serious policy evaluation. They excused the elderly and directed cuts at anything else they could easily reach. Under their budget, financing for early-childhood programs would fall off a cliff. Tens of thousands of kids, maybe hundreds of thousands, would have their slots eliminated midyear.

You’d think Brooks, someone the NYT pays to be informed about how government works, would understand that the legislation he questions isn’t a budget, but a continuing resolution (CR) to fund government in the current fiscal year.   That’s not where you make “serious policy evaluations”.  You do that in budget legislation, something which the Democrats in the House failed to pass last year.   The government has been running on a series of CRs all year.  That doesn’t remove the crying need for cuts in spending, but the only spending under their control in a CR is discretionary spending.  And that’s where they’re cutting.

Brooks prefers to ignore those facts in favor of the emotional argument that they’re going after children in favor of old folks.

What is instructive about the Brooks argument is this is precisely the type arguments that you’re going to see from now on.  Arguments like the one Brooks puts forward here are going to begin with statements like “we must make cuts” and then spend the entire rest of the time arguing against making them.   And 90% of those arguments are going to be based in emotion, not facts or sound reasoning.

Mr. “Make Everyone Hurt” then advances his third austerity principle:

Which leads to the third austerity principle: Never cut without an evaluation process. Before legislators and governors chop a section of the budget, they should make a list of all the relevant programs. They should grade each option and then start paying for them from the top down.

I don’t necessarily disagree with the point, but it is again inconsistent with his first principle, isn’t it?  If everyone has to “hurt”, then something must come from every spending point – to include children’s programs and education.  What Brooks wants is some sort of arbitrary “evaluation” which will – wait for it – justify or rationalize exempting certain programs, policies, departments from spending cuts.

Any guess as to which programs he wants exempted?  Certainly not those effecting older Americans.

Brooks isn’t really serious about cutting spending.   Like many politicians and pundits, he mouths the words and makes the point about all of us sacrificing something, but he really doesn’t mean it. When pressed, he falls right into the “cut everything else but don’t cut my favorite program” group in which you find much of the populace today.  That’s not “shared sacrifice”.

Its hard to take someone seriously who doesn’t seriously address the fact that we have massive debt, massive deficits staring us in the face, a huge new entitlement program on the books and and conclude there’s an urgent need to cut spending in all areas, period.   Brooks should have stopped with his first principle, if he actually wanted to be taken serious.  That is the “new normal”.

~McQ

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One picture tells the US’s problem

It is sort of surprising that it is even necessary to put this up, but as most of us know, people pay more attention to visual evidence than written. And written is sometimes open to misinterpretation. I challenge anyone to misinterpret this:

 

usa-income-statement

If the US were a business, this would be it’s “Income Statement”.   And this isn’t a one time “it’ll get better next year” sort of statement either.  Neither income nor spending are projected by the administration to be much different in its 10 year budget projections.

Note where 58% of the spending comes from.  Do your own calculations -the most simple, of course is taking $2.2 trillion from $3.5 trillion and understanding that you have a shortfall of S1.3 trillion.

The chart comes from a very interesting report from a financial analyst at KPCB, Mary Meeker.  She takes a look at the US’s finances as if the country was a business.  Business Insider (HT: Pundit Review) lays out some of the gory details and what is discussed in the report as recommendations:

• Spending as a percent of GDP rose 3 percent each year from 1790 and 1930. Worse: It rose 24% in 2010.

• Debt levels will be three times current levels by 2030. Entitlements and interest alone will exceed total revenue by 2025.
• Only 1 in 50 Americans needed Medicaid when it was first created in 1965, 1 in 6 Americans receives Medicaid now.
• Extended unemployment benefits could set back America Inc. $34 billion in the next two years alone.
• The only good investments: technology, education and infrastructure.
• The crucial reforms: entitlement and tax policies
• There is no quick-fix to America’s deficit problem. While raising taxes could help, the only real solution is cutting costs.
• Why we should cut Medicare benefits by 53%
• Why we should increase the retirement age to 73 or cut Social Security benefits by 12%.

Emphasis mine.  Essentially the ground truth about the country’s financial situation is the only way to get it in order is to commit to massive cuts in spending. Superfluous to that argument is any argument claiming certain programs or government departments or any other aspect of government should be exempt. That said, it is clear to anyone with eyes that the major problem lies in too much spending for entitlements. For instance how is it a program that was designed to fund medical care for the poor in this country and when started had 1 in 50 Americans enrolled now enrolls 1 in every 6 Americans?  My guess is you’ll find the same to be true of most so-called “anti-poverty” programs today. 

And the billions upon billions we throw at education through the Dept. of Education which hasn’t raised the yearly results of our students one iota since its inception.  Or the Department of Energy – created in Jimmy Carter’s day to do what?  Lessen our dependence on foreign oil.  That’s worked well hasn’t it?

We’re talking drastic action here, folks.   And we’re talking getting a grip and facing reality – not this “hey, make cuts but don’t touch our entitlements” nonsense that  some polls reflect.  Nor can these cuts fall victim to whining by special interests.  And it would be wonderful, in an obvious era of austerity, if the White House could manage a little leadership as well:

Last July, Obama announced that he wanted federal workers to cut down on business travel and commuting by car in order to reduce emissions produced by the federal government:

The White House was announcing Tuesday that the government will aim to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from indirect sources like employee driving by 13 percent in 2020, compared with 2008 levels.

That’s for everyone else.  The Obama’s of course, are exempt from such things and as an example, fly in their personal trainer every week for a workout.  Imagine the reduction in emissions if they were to actually practice what they preach and hire a local personal trainer.

Pulling it all together, this is the problem we face in getting the country’s house in order.  Those that are talking about (and actually trying) cutting spending are now cast as bad guys.  Special interests are spooling up their sob stories.  The bureaucracy is beginning to fortify the walls around its huge and expensive kingdom.  And much of the public wants cuts without pain.  Meanwhile, other than lip service, the so-called leadership of this country doesn’t seem to understand what leadership is, what it entails and why it is important to set a good example –  that is if they’re actually serious about doing what they claim we must do.

If this were a company, as Mary Meeker lays out in her study, investors would be cashing out as quickly as they could and others would be avoiding anything to do with this wreck.  The bottom line of Meeker’s report is the road down which we’ve kicked the can for decades has come to a dead-end.  We’re there.  We can’t kick it one single foot further.

The time has finally come and the question is, are we up to the task at hand?  Do we have the political will and leadership necessary to get done what must be done?  Unfortunately,  I don’t think so – financially speaking and addressing the quality of leadership available, the election of the empty suit in the White House couldn’t have come at a worse time. 

There are at least two ways this crisis will be solved.  Deliberately through tough and painful measures enacted by a leadership that directly confronts the problem and makes tough choices, or spontaneously when we reach a tipping point and everything collapses in a heap and we’re left surveying the ruins and wondering what happened.

Any guess as to which scenario I think is most likely?

~McQ

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